Technical :: 2006-09-27 07:33:29

In freediving, the beginner and the champion have something in common: Equalisation problems. Here is Claude Chapuis' general analysis of this issue which isn't as simple as a matter of good or bad ears

Equalisation at the bottom is one of the major issues in freediving. Even the champions, admit that this is their only limit to greater depth. Even if you only go down at 30m, or even 15m, you have certainly felt that you cannot go deep because you don't have good ears. The reality is certainly less simple. We are going to look at a few examples which will give an insight to understanding better equalisation, allowing you to improve the technique.
The Eustachian tube is often wrongly taken as responsible
From an anatomic point of view, this is a key point in freediving and scuba. This thin canal, which goes from the middle of the ear to the pharynx, opens to allow the equalisation of the middle ear to the surrounding pressure. If we are not equal from an anatomic point of view, the first advice I would give you is to not take your ear or your tympanic membrane as an explanation for your difficulties in compensating. We are too often happy with an easy explanation which hides the true issues. On this point, I can only advice the instructors not to conclude too quickly that their students should go and buy a new pair of ears, since once they will be convinced they've not been spoiled by Mother nature, it will be more difficult to make them work on other circumstances to allow their ear to go deep, especially exercising the tube.    
The tube gym or educating the Eustachian tube
Another factor of the Eustachian tube permeability other than its anatomy, is the quality of its Perystaphyllins muscles, which contract to allow the tube to open. All muscles need to be exercised and controlled. Many trained apneists exercise with their tongue on a daily basis  (sticking the tongue out as far as possible, moving backwards and forwards their inferior jaw, spend their time yawning with open and closed mouth....) There are, in fact, lots of exercises of both muscular and perception which improve control and reinforce  the Perystaphyllins  muscles. The skilled web users will easily be able to download the complete documents about these exercises by using these 2 keywords: Exercise and Eustachian tube.
Even if you only equalise by pinching your nose, be aware that in difficult situations, you will be able to make a Frenzel technique easy by first contracting the Perystaphyllins  muscles.        

Being supple: A major asset
I have often met deep freedivers, they all work on their stretching. This is defined as the ability to do high amplitude movements. There are generic stretches which makes several articulations work. Illustrated by the classic stretch where you try to touch your toes; but this is not the most important. I would like to insist that the suppleness of the thoracic cage; in extension as well as in compression. At depth, the pressure is high and the more you go down, the more you are compressed. This is why we often say that we cannot find enough air at the bottom to equalise. Of course, working on the stretching of your thorax will allow you to improve. The deeper you go, the more you need to work your stretching and this is a lifetime workout. Some of us work our lateral extension of the chest everyday, extensions and flexions and even rotations. We can also add a breathing exercise with a deep expiration which make the thorax cage work its elasticity. Remind yourselves that a tin box reaches the bottom more quickly than a balloon which is more supple and which reach the bottom progressively. So, wait no more and workout as a group, this is more friendly.     
Being relaxed: One of the key factors in depth freediving
Go down in constant weight, until the point where you won't be able to equalise any longer. At this point, take the rope, close your eyes and relax. The ears will then "clear" without any problem. Being supple doesn't mean being totally relaxed. You can be supple and completely contracted, either by the fear or the stress, or because you don't completely master the control of your tonus. The deeper you go, the gauge in your head reaches the red zone and the sentence "go back up" is present. We are then stressed and the equalisations suddenly become a difficult exercise. You must on the one hand discover by a work on self awareness (at home, in bed, at the gym or during a static freediving workout) the ability you have to relax your muscles and your muscular tonus. This is a workout which takes years and years. But you also need the mental strength to relax when you are deep down. This ability is reached by the daily practice and "mastering the depth", which is the main objective of your instructor. This is essentially a work on controlling yourself. Do not fight with your ears, relax. To achieve this, you must accept depth as something which is not worrying. Otherwise your "depth limit wall" will be difficult to cross. Many good freedivers have a personal depth barrier, and to them I would advise to look inside themselves instead of trying by all means to clear their ears by strength.         

More air please!
If you exhale all your air (Known as “Empty lung” Training), you can only reach 1 or 2 meters with difficulty; if you exhale less, you can go down deeper and so on. Thus it is common knowledge that if we go down with a lot of air, we can go deeper. This is true, but let's be careful on this point. The practice of packing, much used in the last few years by the apneists, only delays the issue. Nowadays, we see too often apneists, of average level, make a lot of  packing to go down to 40m. In fact they are hiding their real problem: a lack of stretching or too much anxiety, (both of which lead to the same conclusion). We must come back to the true values which allow a real technical work on equalisation. Look at the photos of Jacques Mayol during his records of 100m and more. No packing! so go back to training with courage, stop packing during winter and try to reach the same depths as you did with packing. The best comparison I often give to the freedivers is: When skiing, if your buddy goes faster than you in the turns,  do not try to do making your skis go faster, but work on your technique on turns.

Which equalisation technique is best at the bottom?
If you are lucky enough to be like Loic Leferme and Guillaume Nery, (who open their  tubes without touching their nose) or if your hand is a precious tool to equalise (Valsalva or Frenzel), close to your depth limit a big adventure will always start, both technical and tactical. Whatever your equalisation technique, there is no problem at the start. We should, however, acknowledge that the first people to be limited will be those who use Valsalva, as the problem is to "find" some air, as the freedivers would say, and to have it go up to the throat where it can be used, either in creating a void in the tube (the inferior jaw moving forward, yawing with the mouth closed...), or by doing a Frenzel technique. The classic images of freedivers with the belly contacted and the diaphragm up, have been used in all magazines. It shows that you master this muscle which is so important for deep freedivers. By taking the diaphragm up, we can take back towards the superior parts (behind the throat especially), the small amount of air available that can be used at the bottom. Do not forget however, the tactical aspect; The moment when you choose to equalise. If you feel that the limit is near, do not wait, since a delay in the equalisation can make the opening of the tube impossible; scuba divers know this too well. In addition to the moment where you put your last equalisation, be aware that going too fast in the descent will make things more difficult; therefore, slow down and take advantage to relax. Also note that if you expend energy on opening your tubes to equalise, the pay back will be at depth. I would go as far as saying that during a descent, equalise more often but never put strength into equalising. To equalise well at the bottom, is to equalise easily from the start; so do not put too much space between your equalisations to help with hydrodynamics.

And the mental?
Mainly we must understand that any tension or stress will have an influence on relaxation and lucidity. If you are tense, the ears won't clear and if you are not lucid, the equalisation will happen at the wrong time. It is important when you try to improve in depth, especially if you have problems in equalisation, to ask yourself: Am I ready to go down? This ability to" empty" your mind, to concentrate only on the technical and tactical aspects of the equalisation, must not been forgotten by the instructor. The right conditions to optimize relaxation must be created. If you encounter difficulties equalising at 32m, put the weight at the bottom of the rope at 32m. Go down, touch the weight and you will see that you can equalise, even when this is impossible with no depth limit; The next time, when you will try 33 or 34m, you will be more relaxed near the bottom, because you will know you are able to equalise at 32m. Another solution is to let the instructor go down just before you (if his level allows this!). Thus not being alone at the bottom, you will become more relaxed and everything will become more easy;

What must we learn from all this?
There are so many other factors which make the equalisation in deep sea easier: hot and clear water, a suit which doesn't stick to the ears, being aerobically strong; which will develop your lungs volume. It is important to understand that deep equalisation relies on many factors: technical, tactical, psychological and physiologic. Do not give up and remember that it takes years to improve in depth, there is no magical recipe.

Packing: Technique of packing air into the lungs before starting. Utilizing mouth and throat movements comparable to a fish who tries to breathe in the air.
Valsalva: Technique of equalisation where you pinch your nose while trying to blow; This is a technique used by beginners, easy to teach but which needs to be non violent to be well done. Note: The pressure is created within the chest/lungs.
Frenzel: Technique where you pinch the nose and create pressure by moving the back of the tongue.
Other techniques: yawning mouth closed, forward the chin, swallow, take the palate up. BTV (Béer Tubulaire Volontaire: Voluntary open of the tubes)

Questions to Loic Leferme ( - 171 m No Limits WR )
Is the equalisation technique important in your discipline?

Yes, but not essential. It would be a bit easy to think that because we don't equalise in BTV (which is the more advanced technique), we cannot go deep. The suppleness of the thoracic cage and of the body in general remains the essential factor in depth.

How do you usually equalise?

As far as I am concerned, I use any technique, as long as it doesn't put pressure on the tympanic membrane. This means that you need to be extremely precise and subtle in the way you equalise.

Do you go from one technique to another when you reach depth?

Indeed, at the bottom I would rather use a kind of BTV.

What advice would you give to a beginner in your discipline?

Do not put strength on your ears. At no times you should be hurt. If it does, if you feel a pinch, it's better to go back up.
And to a more advanced freediver; would you ask him to emphasize on anything else?

To be sensitive to the various tiny  pressures on the tympanic membrane, without waiting for it to be too much pressurised to equalise. Use anything you want or can, but without putting pressure; Try to workout the BTV in your car or at work.

If you have to say only one thing about equalisation?

Equalisation must be taken as a global system: general suppleness of the body which leads to a better suppleness of the diaphragm, which leads to a better suppleness of the thoracic cage, which leads to a better contraction of the cage, which leads to sending some air to the tympanic membranes. No air, no equalisation.  

Questions to Guillaume Nery ( - 109 m Constant WR )

Is the equalisation technique important in your discipline?

As in any depth discipline, the equalisation is an essential factor of the performance, especially as in my case it must be done with the head downwards.

During a constant weight descent, several factors limit my ability to equalise:
- Going down with the head downwards: in this position, taking up the few bits of air which remain at this depth (because of the pressure) is more difficult or less natural (in this position, taking the air up, is in fact like taking it down to the ORL sphere)
- Until now, during my trainings (records and competition), I used to wear a masque, the volume of which made me loose air and concentration.
- The difficulty to relax because the descent is done with a monofin.
How do you usually equalise?

 I equalise at the start and at the finish of the descent by BTV; which means that I constantly leave the eustachian tube open as these are tiny muscles. This technique allows me to concentrate on relaxing and hydrodynamics. Below a certain depth (70m), I must make an added effort by opening the eustachian tube and taking the air up simultaneously. In fact the problem is the same for everybody;
Do you go from one technique to another when you reach depth?
When I almost reach the bottom, I try to anticipate on the equalisation; this means that I try to take some air up before really needing it and before it becomes difficult to achieve. But anyway, the method to take the air towards the internal ear via the eustache tube remains the same, this is the air available which is the issue. 

What advice would you give to a beginner in your discipline?

Being relaxed is key to a good equalisation. If you equalise at 3,6,9m and then only at 15m, but can’t clear any further, it is not because of a small thoracic cage, but because of a lack of relaxation.
The only way to be relaxed is to spend time in water in order to become more aquatic.
And to a more advanced freediver; would you ask him to emphasize on anything else?
At each training, I learn something new on equalisation. Therefore, concentrate on all your feelings during each descent. The deeper you go, the more subtle the technique must be.

If you have to say only one thing about equalisation?

A very good way of working out the equalisation all year round is to do some descents with empty lungs. Even in winter we can train at limited depth (40m)
Text by Claude Chapuis
Translated by Arnaud and Mig
UW pics by Francisco Gautier
Loic stretching by David Luquet
Loic ascending by Franck Seguin

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Name: Pichit with IP: in 2006-12-04 10:55:15/23419
Comment: Thank you for the great article. More please :)

Name: francisco with IP: in 2006-10-03 17:47:14/23418
Comment: send a request to freedive central with your contact and we'll send it to you.

Name: anonymous with IP: in 2006-10-03 08:04:24/23417
Comment: IS it possible to have the original article in french ?

Name: pig diver with IP: in 2006-09-28 15:39:18/23416
Comment: in french please

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